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More questions than answers at annual design conference

Hilary Stunda

Semiotics is the study of signs, sign systems and the way meaning is derived from them. But in this digital age, how do we decipher gestures and imagery? Especially when it’s a world that only seems to makes sense over phone lines.

Where relationships are established via e-mail, and where travel is explored through Web sites and hotels discussed in chat rooms, where do we, as global nomads, find trust and guidance in a world saturated with visuals? Where do we turn when the information highway is cluttered with spinoffs, byproducts and extensions?

Over the weekend, the 49th annual International Design Conference explored these questions. And in the end, there were no answers.

The ephemeral landscape that digital technology has created as an extension of the human brain can only be conceptualized. Constantly changing and morphing, it’s a mercurial beast. It can be only be partially tamed. The rest is left to skepticism and fear. Digital minds The design conference was successful in that it was a symposium of great minds. At the root of all the lectures was the question: Where do we go now with what’s been created?

The keynote speakers seemed to simultaneously revel in the future of digital design while they expressed a sense of wariness. While Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy spoke about as clearly as he could, demonstrating key points in black type against a white screen, he still managed to speak over the audience’s heads. You can’t digest Joy in an hour.

On the other hand, Craig Kanarick, co-founder of Razorfish, brought it down to the general public’s level. Young, witty, and hip, Kanarick embodies the digital age: the youth, the cutting-edge, the cocky intellectualism laced with the backlash of CEO ostentation.

With cropped, peroxided, razor-cut hair, and Elvis Costello glasses, Kanarick paced the stage wearing a metallic blue-green, shimmering-with-digital-possibility-blazer that resembled hundreds of computer chips pieced together. He was the guy at the Student Union who had something else going on that was bigger than scoring a date.

A classic “multi-tasker,” Kanarick serves on the board of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Design Museum’s Professional Designers Centennial Committee when he’s not working as chief scientist of Razorfish. Questioning the effects It’s young men like Kanarick who are spreading brand identification worldwide. And it was lectures like James Desrosier’s, “Unpredictability: Where Brands, Media and Technology Collide,” that questioned the very effects of the American brand globalization. Will global “branding” replace cultural identity?

For the past 22 years Desrosier has helped build a number of the world’s most recognized consumer brands. Being an expert at positioning and launching products and services into the marketplace, Desrosier recognizes the speed at which brand recognition is spreading and admits we might be “designing problems rather than solutions.” During his lecture this theme popped up on his video screen: “Marshall McLuhan collides with Gertrude Stein. The medium is the medium is the medium.”

Just as the early industrial age was confusing to those who first witnessed its emergence, so is the current electronic landscape. Brands are going global faster, we’re not able to keep up with it.

Where certain guest speakers were lost in their hyper-intellectual/industry jargon, other speakers pared it down to a digestible concept. The bottom line is, will the digital landscape create an even bigger rift between the haves and the have nots or will it further democratize? Will the world be reduced to brands and labels that Third World inhabitants will understand and ultimately embody as part of their cultural ethos? How many more years until our identity is reduced to the black electronic swipe on the back of our ATM cards? We are the world As Rebeca Mendez, the Creative Director of Mendez Communications Design said: “My work is a way to make order and system and pattern to something I’m fascinated with.” In her case, images.

Coming from Mexico City, without prior knowledge of English, Mendez identified with a visual landscape. Besides exhibiting video installations at museums, she designs for Tommy Jeans, Lutece restaurants, Samsung, The Whitney Museum of American Art and others. Mendez’s short video was a 5-minute visual dream of advertisements, dreamscapes, archetypal images sewn together by phrases that swiftly moved across the screen. Then suddenly moving across the screen were the words, “People think they want to be part of the world. They don’t realize they are the world.”

The late designer Tibor Kalman’s global magazine “Benneton,” had a cover that showed a black infant being pulled from a white woman’s womb. The crying face, the umbilical cord still attached and bloody, was a deliberate, cross-cultural slap in the face. Mendez’s images might be softer and more sensual, but the message is the same. No answers During the course of the conference there was, at times, the unspoken refrain, “the digital industry is still a blurry sprawl of information.” An undefined happening. We have no answers. It was clear that these techno-leaders and visionaries were at times daunted by the task that lay ahead of them.

How does design help us make sense of the world? “By recreating sense, texture, the sensual,” Mendez says. Bill Joy mentioned how computer-aided aerodynamic features will enable the partial wing of a jet to perform with as much equilibrium and perfection as a whole wing.

David Ross, the Director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the world’s first curator of Video Art, speculated on the idea of museums being replaced by the virtual museum. He also raised the question of potential educational discrimination between the haves and the have nots.

Most of the attendees seemed pleased with the conference, not so much with the actual lectures, which left even bigger questions in the air, but the people they met. As program chairman Aaron Betsky said: “In the end, we will ask one question that is at the heart of all these queries: What do we make of ourselves as human makers in a digital world?”

One thing is clear. It’s evident that the power and knowledge is in the hands of some very fine intellectuals and visionaries. But the scale hovers. The good and the bad weigh in the same. As to the future, we’ll just have to wait and see.


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